Sunday, October 18, 2009

In which selfishness is selfless?

A smiley by Pumbaa, drawn using a text editor.Image via Wikipedia
OK, this is a concept I really struggle with.  I mean, I get the first part, but I have quite a bit of trouble grasping the second:

One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy.
One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.
(Gretchen Rubin, The Happiness Project)

I can't quote pinpoint why, but it seems that going out opf my way to make myself and only myself happy is the very definition of selfish.  Seems like it's better to just make other people happy, and if whatever you're doing (whether it's volunteering at a shelter or going with a friend to his/her favorite restaurant) happens to make you happy, too, awesome -- keep doing that and everyone wins

Being selfish without considering the happiness of others seems like a surefire way to make others unhappy -- you take advantage of them, or neglect them, and then they're angry and resentful and don't love you anymore. 

Whoa.  Baggage much?

Now maybe this post from Happy Days at the New York Times is on to something:

You can see this as an internal battle between two individuals residing in the same body: one who wants to be thin, sober and chaste, the other who wants to eat, drink and fornicate. It’s the long-term self who is probably reading this now; this is the self that chooses to go to the therapist and read self-help books, working to thwart the short-term self when it comes to life in the presence of temptation.

We shouldn’t underestimate the short-term self, though. It is not necessarily evil and not necessarily stupid. Sometimes the long-term self should stay out of its way.

This doesn’t mean that we should be indulging in [short-term pleasures]—perhaps there are better things to do today than go to a horror movie. But it does suggest that we should hesitate before dismissing such desires as selfish or irrelevant. Perhaps the good life doesn’t require constant warfare. Perhaps people are better off if their multiple selves establish a truce, respecting one another’s different strengths, and working together to satisfy shared goals.

So, what do you think? Assuming it's true that making yourself happy makes others happy -- and while I don't understand it, I'll work with the premise -- how do you, personally, find a way to make yourself and just yourself happy without making others unhappy in the process?

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Darx said...

Hi, found your blog via Havi's. I don't know that I have a good answer to your question but I do know that my thinking on this topic for a long time ago has been that until you're happy, you're not much good at making other people happy, so you're really doing people a disservice if you go around trying to make them happy without making yourself happy first, because you won't be able to do a very good job at it. Like, I figure the best thing I can do for the people around me is take care of myself so I don't turn crabby (not happy). If I'm already cruising in the happy zone, then I might have some extra to give someone else. Does that make sense?

Not that I always manage to do it, but the philosophy is there.

Laura said...

Hi, Darx! Thanks for the comment!

What you're saying makes sense, but there's just so many hours in the day, you know? It's hard to know where to draw that line.

It's a good philosophy, though!

Jenny said...

Hi Laura. I agree with Darx. If we're making sure we're happy, we can also help others feel happy. There's the old saying, "You can't pour love from an empty pitcher."

I'll add in a second thought, well, a question really. When we focus on making others happy, why do we do that?

I've heard people say things like "I want to make sure they're happy." "I want to be selfless."

I hear those things as selfish. We're wanting to be perceived a certain way. We are selfish about how we want others to see us and think of us.

When we focus on being happy ourselves, the love will flow towards others naturally, not with expectation or desired outcome about how others will respond.

What are your thoughts on this second idea?

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